Americans are constantly skittering about, and as a skittering parent I can attest that a traditional dinner is frequently sacrificed for a ballet lesson or after-school play date. All too often that meal is replaced with fast food, pizza or a single-dish meal like macaroni and cheese.

But in the spirit of ingenuity (oh yeah, and profit), entrepreneurs have seized upon the opportunity the 24/7 life has created. Personal chefs are a burgeoning industry that offers busy people a professionally-prepared meal in their home that doesn't require them to cut back on extracurricular activities.

To be clear, this isn't Wolfgang Puck cooking for the stars. These are neighbors and friends in your community that have launched their own home-based ventures. Entrepreneur.com flagged personal chefs as one of the top six home-based businesses for 2004. David Mackay, executive director and founder of the United States Personal Chef Association, or USPCA, says the business for personal chefs comes from the demands of its target customer.

"Busy people want what's-for-dinner solutions," Mackay says. "Also, as baby boomers turn 50 years old, they realize they can't go to McDonald's or grab something on the way. They know they've got to eat healthier, but they still want it now."

Because convenience and efficiency are integral to the personal chef service, the USPCA emphasizes that chefs work with their customers. The organization's model service calls for the chef to cook five, four-serving entrees and an appropriate number of side dishes.

Kate Habib, who launched In Home Cooking from her Newburyport, Mass., home last fall, emphasizes the importance of working with your clients and adapting the service to their needs. The menu-planning process is structured as a joint venture where the chef and client sit down and define preferences.

"I fill out a detailed food questionnaire about likes, dislikes and allergies, etc.," Habib says, "And for the first menu, they usually choose five from the 20 recipes I give them to look at."

On subsequent orders, Habib will suggest five recipes for the week, and the client gives his approval or disapproval, and they move from there.

But don't worry. This is not restaurant-style service where you have to order off the menu, and variation from the norm will be met with supercilious disdain. Personal chefs come to the organization with restaurant-quality cooking skills, and the USPCA encourages them to adapt those talents to serve the tastes of clients. The organization even offers two-day courses that guide members through the major diets.

That training can pay dividends. Habib has cooked the first two weeks of the South Beach Diet for two clients who bought the service so that they wouldn't have to think about the diet. That way they only had to worry about personally cooking a regular meal for their families, rather than making two meals.

No Muss, No Fuss, Full Freezer

So once clients have selected a menu for a week's worth of meals, the next step is the preparation -- and the real appeal of the personal chef service to anyone who has ever faced a sink full of dishes. On the appointed day, the chef buys fresh ingredients for the meals, then proceeds to the client's house. Once there, the chef prepares the meals using his or her own equipment, then packs, labels and freezes the order -- complete with thawing and reheating instructions. Finally, the chef cleans up the kitchen, leaving the client's home spic and span, though with the lingering scent of good home cooking.

The cost of personal chef service varies regionally but, as a rule of thumb, chefs price their services to match the average price at a mid-range restaurant in their area. Their 'competition,' as it were, being the type of place you'd run to for a quick bite to eat between practices, not a place where you'd sit down for foie gras and drinks with The Wine Snob. For instance, Habib's service to Boston's North Shore communities costs between $13 to $17 per individual serving.

Although this may seem like a service one would only give to oneself, Mackay and Habib say gifts are a frequent source of business. Mackay notes that the association encourages new businesses to pursue new clients through the use of gift certificates.

"Most of my clients thus far have been gifts for others," says Habib. "And one client has me cook at her house for her elderly parents. The parents are on a slightly restricted diet and while they're well enough to heat up a meal, they aren't well enough to manage their diet constraints."

If you're interested in researching a chef near you, the USPCA site has a search engine, where you can enter your address and obtain the names of personal chefs near you.

(On a personal note, I can vouch for the glee that a fully stocked freezer provides. Habib, you see, has been good enough to fill my freezer upon the births of my two children, and one hopes that she'll find time in her busy new venture to provide that favor again in a few short weeks to her newest niece or nephew.)